The journey east to Brecon was long but not without its charms. Back in Haverfordwest I caught the train to Carmarthen through gorgeous green countryside and over many an old railway bridge topped with merry people waving. At times it was like being part of a very large model railway. The experience would have been all the more enjoyable were it not for the train guard. The ticket office at Haverfordwest had been deserted and the prospect of a free trip was a distinct possibility. This bet had been crippling me financially since the start, so any chance of a freebie had to be seized with both hands. Things were looking good until the penultimate stop, when the dreaded guard caught me day-dreaming and yanked a £10 note from my reluctant grasp.
From Carmarthen I caught another bus, having first had a brief look at what remains of the castle there. Wales is absolutely teeming with these things, thanks partly to the efforts of the Normans and later King Edward I, who saw fit to knock up a good few fortresses to keep the locals under his boot. Standing amidst the ruins, I reflected on the imperialist nature of the English throughout history and wondered quite why we have gone to such lengths to extend our borders and generally piss off the rest of the World. Before this trip a Welshman in a pub had warned me about opening my mouth in certain regions of this homeland. He was adamant that colourful language would ensue and a few other choice words that would leave me in no doubt whatsoever that they really were not keen on me. So far though everyone had been kindness itself, and I began to think his words had been little more than scaremongering. And in any case, it is difficult to be intimidated by the Welsh, who of all the people on Earth possess the least threatening accent.
My penultimate stop was in the small town of Llandovery, where the ruins of yet another castle can be seen atop a grassy mound. There was a half hour wait for my next bus, so to kill some time I explored yet another noble fort. Here a rather unusual mounument to Owain Glyndŵr, the famous hero of Welsh nationalism, can be seen. Even in the afternoon’s dull weather its metallic sheen was blinding. The statue (I’m guessing) is not supposed to be 100% realistic, otherwise the English army would have been dealing with some sort of Johnny 5-like robot during the Welsh uprisings of the early 15th-century.
I was the only passenger on the bus to Brecon and the driver was at liberty to talk. He winced at my pronunciation of the towns and villages we passed through but was friendly enough. He gave a snort when the purpose of my trip was revealed and heartily gave his approval for the venture. Once we arrived in Brecon it was too late to visit the cathedral, so I asked him if he knew the way to the Youth Hostel, where I had planned to spend the night. He looked at me as if I had just asked the way to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and said that he didn’t think there actually was a hostel in Brecon. This was worrying news as it was getting dark and my meagre budget would see me laughed out of all the other hotels in town. Most of these I trudged past on my way down to the canal, which the driver thought was roughly in the right direction of the hostel. The hotels all looked warm and inviting of course, as most places do when you know you can’t afford them. Inside jolly, red-cheeked folk were sat down to dinner in the bar, tucking into steak and quaffing pints of ale, while I pressed my nose against the windows with a sigh, like some pathetic Victorian urchin.
Feeling mournful and suddenly very lonely I began the long walk along the canal path. The bus driver had called it a “pleasant stroll”. If by “pleasant” he meant a laborious trudge through puddles, thick mud and goose crap, resulting in total despair and general dark thoughts then his description was spot on. The path went on for quite some way and I began to question the accuracy of the directions I had been given.
As the sun began to sink behind the nearby Brecon Beacons I had a good mind to retrace my steps, go and find the bus driver and do him some horrible injury; that or ask someone else the way. Eventually a kind soul appeared on the path and confirmed that I was on the right track, but warned that the hostel was inside a deep, dark wood where it was likely that I would be shot with a poisoned dart and wake up inside a burning wicker man surrounded by locals chanting pagan songs of sacrifice. He didn’t actually say that, but those were the images running through my head as I entered the dark wood in question.
Eventually the hostel appeared amongst the trees and so ended a long and exhausting journey. The building itself was rather drab and depressing, but the staff were friendly and the prices low and the dinner excellent. Sleep came very easily that night.
Over breakfast the following morning I got talking to the hostel’s only other guest – a fellow Englishman on a gloriously aimless jaunt through Wales. He had been driving around with no particular destination in mind and seeing where his fancy took him. This seemed a splendid attitude to travel and it was worthy of praise. He had also passed through St. David’s and agreed that it was a “fine spot”, and recommended a number of other charming towns and villages in the locality. He had yet to go to the north and I toyed with the idea of asking hum for a lift to the cathedrals in Bangor and St. Asaph, before reality reminded me that work awaited me the following day. He did though offer me a lift into town, which I gladly accepted.
It was fine summer morning and Brecon was at its very best. In a happy state of mind I made a leisurely route up to the cathedral, which sits in the quiet backstreets of the town, on top of a hill almost entirely obscured by trees. It is a lonely spot but a wonderfully peaceful one. A modest doorway serves as the entrance here and in I slipped. Just as I got inside my phone rang:
“Hello, this is BBC Radio Coventry. We’ve heard all about your, err, hobby and wondered if you’d like to do a live interview with us this coming Sunday?
Yes, why not? I told them I would be delighted to and hung up.
Oh no. Just then I remembered all the mean things I’d written about Coventry on my blog, not about the cathedral but the ugliness of the city itself. Making a mental note to think of some nice things to say about the place I delved into my fourth Welsh cathedral.
Brecon Cathedral exudes an air of calmness. The building and its interior is certainly charming but cannot be called stunning, having a relatively modest layout that is simple to explore. The beauty of a cathedral (or any building, in fact) does not always have to lie in its appearance but in the feeling it gives you, and here it was an aura of calm that was most striking. This is not to say that the building is ugly, far from it, but that for perhaps the first time on this licking trip it was the atmosphere of the place that had the greater hold on me, rather than the architecture. I sat for a while to drink in this serenity and then began exploring.
Although modest by design and layout, the cathedral contains several eye-catching treasures, most notably an ancient baptismal font decorated with the heads of horned, ugly beasts with enormous tusks. These date to the Dark Ages and have no doubt been frightening pre-baptised babies and other young children for centuries. Carvings such as these were, it is believed, a hark back to pagan myths, which were still well-known even after the arrival of Christianity on these shores. Religious faith could be altered, but even as late as the 15th-century Western Europe still clung onto some remnants of its pagan past. This is evident in churches and cathedrals up and down the land, where the unsettling faces of grinning creatures look down on us with menace from lofty heights.
Brecon’s other main highlight is its association with the British army. Brecon men have served and died in numerous conflicts over the years, most notably the Zulu War of 1879 when a good number saw action at Isandhwala and Rourke’s Drift. Their colours can be seen in St. Lawrence’s chapel here, and include one that was captured by the Zulus. Another hero lies in the churchyard: one Charles Henry Lumley, who won the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War for leading a near-suicidal charge at Sebastobol. Although not a local to these parts, this proud Scot later achieved the rank of major before being laid to rest here in 1858. His other claim to fame is being an ancestor of the actress Joanna Lumley.
I’m sorry to say that pretty soon I had exhausted all there is to see at Brecon Cathedral, though the beasts’ heads on the font were given another thorough examination, and if anything, they get uglier the more you look at them. Now it was time to get licking.
There had been no decent signs anywhere inside the cathedral, and it’s very generic interior would not be sufficient proof of its location, so I turned my attention to the exterior. A suitable sign was found near the main door and I licked away, being very pleased with the result. I recorded the lick on film as well, just for good measure. Having traveled huge distances I was paranoid of losing a camera so decided to get as many copies of the deed as possible. The loss of such evidence would be catastrophic.
My mood was buoyant post lick; I had achieved what I had set out to do and now the rest of the day was before me. Strolling back into town I nodded good morning to the good folk of Brecon, who all returned the greeting with a smile. What a jolly fine place this was. Passing two old gentlemen with another nod, I overheard part of their conversation, which was delightfully baffling:
“So yes, in that respect the fish and I are in agreement.”
After a couple of drinks in a friendly pub it was time to start heading back to London, a fact that did little to cheer my heart. It had barely been 48 hours since I’d left and already the travel lust was alive in me again. At the bus station I spotted buses heading north, up to St. Asaph and Bangor, and once more the temptation to cast my responsibilities to the wind and continue my Welsh licking journey was overpowering. I could always call in sick and tell work that I was far too ill to come that day, tomorrow or however long it would take to get back from some, as yet, unknown destination. In the end I decided to be sensible and climbed aboard the bus home, a choice I soon came to regret. The journey back my mind was plagued with thoughts of “what if” and where I might have ended up had I taken the chance. Sensible is so overrated.